It was way back in 1995 when Pixar revolutionized animation with "Toy Story," the first, fully-computer animated film. But it wasn't just the ground-breaking, life-like visuals that made the movie a huge hit. It was also thanks to a wonderful story about the secret lives of toys that was both hilarious and tugged on the heartstrings.
The plan to make a quick, direct-to-video sequel were thankfully scrapped and Pixar poured their energy into two high-quality follow-ups. Now, nine years after the last film, Disney-Pixar is out with the fourth installment that brings back your favorite characters, plus adds some impressive new ones.
The movie begins with a flashback that re-introduces a minor character from the first two films -- Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts from "Young Sheldon"), who we learn has a mutual attraction with main character Woody (voiced by the returning Tom Hanks).
Unfortunately, the timing for that budding romance isn't quite right, and the story fast-forwards to the present where Woody and most of his toy friends now belong to a young girl named Bonnie (voiced by Madeleine McGraw from the TV series "Outcast").
The screenplay by Stephany Folsom and longtime Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton is big on transitions with Woody struggling with his sense of duty to the girl, but still missing his former owner -- Andy. Young Bonnie is facing her own new challenges as she starts school for the first time, depicted in an emotional scene that effectively recalls the angst that many of us can remember from that scary time.
There are some slow moments early on but the movie really begins to fire on all cylinders when Bonnie and her family embark in an RV for a getaway trip, taking along her toy collection. Woody's hands are full dealing with a new toy named "Forky" that Bonnie created in a craft class from a spork (one of those plastic utensils that are a cross between a spoon and fork). The reluctant Forky (Tony Hale from "Arrested Development") escapes his new family, pursued by Woody, who is now a fish-out-of-water, dealing with strange situations, including an antiques store populated by a scheming lonely female doll (Christina Hendricks from "Mad Men") along with her creepy ventriloquist-doll henchmen.
Director Josh Cooley -- another Pixar veteran -- is helming his first full-length feature with "Toy Story 4," and he and writers made a good decision by focusing less on the returning toys from the previous films, and instead giving more time to some really interesting new characters. They include Duke Kaboom -- an Evel Knievel-type stuntman action figure from Canada (voiced by Canadian Keanu Reeves), who has a memorable entrance scene, as well as two fluffy toy animals named "Bunny" and "Ducky" (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), who deliver some very funny and twisted lines that help give the movie a bit of unexpected edge.
This new focus means there's far less screen time for even audience favorite Buzz Lightyear, but it was a good move as Woody's personal challenges deserve to be front and center and not diluted by cramming in too many characters and subplots.
The end result is a very sentimental movie that will have people reaching for the Kleenex, but is still very funny. I'm not sure if there's anywhere else to go story-wise with this franchise, but if "Toy Story 4" is the final film in the series, it's an excellent way to wrap things up.
One word of advice: make sure you stay to the very end of the credits.
4 ½ stars out of 5